Cognitive Distortions Create Imposter Syndrome

September 17, 2018

radu-florin-756283-unsplashRecently, we received wellness tips from NIH Director, Dr. Collins. In case you missed it, you can check it out here. Part of that discussion revolved around how establishing a career in science and maintaining a healthy work-life balance can be stressful.

Stressful situations are often fraught not only with external challenges, like getting that grant or interviewing well for that job; however, there are often a slew of internal challenges as well. Thinking errors and cognitive distortions can arise during stress.

During times of high stress, like graduate school or a first job search, automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) can become even more pronounced. Often trainees will face a barrage of worries and doubts. Sometimes this inner dialogue can be helpful. Your inner voice can help you think and guide your decision-making. At other times, this voice can turn critical and it can become a pessimistic monologue stuck on repeat saying things like: You’ll never get a job. You aren’t competitive enough for that grant/position/award. You should stop trying.

The most common issue that results from an overactive inner critic is the imposter syndrome. The imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where people are unable to internalize their own accomplishments. They see their success as chance luck or good timing. They believe that in time, others will recognize what they believe to be true – that they are not smart enough and that, in fact, they are a fraud.

According to Aaron Beck and David Burns, two leading experts in cognition, cognitive distortions are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time. Patterns and systems of thought are often subtle and difficult to identify if they become a regular feature in your day-to-day thoughts. Often cognitive distortions are connected to mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. Beck and Burns identified the most common distortions/thinking errors. As you will see below, feeling like an imposter is a “disqualifying the positive” type of cognitive distortion.

Disqualifying the Positive
This distortion acknowledges positive experiences but rejects them instead of embracing them. For example, a person gets offered a job at a prestigious institute. Instead of being proud of their accomplishment, they will think “I got the job because not that many people applied.” Or “I think I got the job because my mentor is well known and served as a reference.” This distortion is directly tied to the imposter syndrome.

Overgeneralization
Taking one isolated situation and using it to make wide generalizations. For the job seeker, this could look like, “Well, I didn’t get that one job. Nobody wants to hire me. I’m never going to get a job.” All or nothing language like “always” or “never” is another form of overgeneralization and black-and-white thinking.

Mental Filter
This occurs when somebody focuses almost exclusively on one specific, usually negative or upsetting, aspect of a situation while ignoring the rest. For the job seeker, this could look like, “I answered that one interview question so terribly!” Even if the rest of the interview went well, the person will ruminate about their perceived mistake.

Fortune Telling
This is often also called jumping to conclusions or mind reading and it happens when you assume you know what is going to happen.  Perhaps in an interview, you imagine what the hiring manager is thinking. “They are probably thinking my answer was really stupid.” Then you anticipate how the situation will unfold and assume you will never get the job.

Emotional Reasoning
This refers to the acceptance of one’s emotions and feelings as fact. Surprisingly, many people use this distortion frequently. These statements are often found in the imposter syndrome as well. People will say, “I feel like a fraud, so it must be true.”

In their book, The Confidence Code, Kay and Shipman define Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) as thoughts that come up in a recurrent fashion and constantly buzz around your head, demanding your attention, and hijacking your sense of self-confidence and calm. Our society and the culture in biomedical science often reinforce ANTs and promote anxiety instead of empowerment. To challenge ANTs, try using PATs – Positive Affirming Thoughts. Instead of thinking “I will never amount to anything.” try saying “I trust that my training and perseverance will eventually pay off.”

Labeling, investigating and talking back to your ANTs takes practice but in time can help you to minimize these cognitive intrusions. A helpful and free guided meditation podcast called “Getting Bigger than What Bugs You” can be found at Focusing Resources. Talking to mentors, peers, career counselors and therapists can also help immensely. You will most likely find out that you are not alone. You may never be able to fully silence your inner critic but hopefully, in time, you can turn down the volume.

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Interview with Dr. Collins on Wellness

September 5, 2018

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OITE was lucky enough to recently connect with the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins. He offers valuable tips from his own life and experiences. This is a must read for all, especially scientists just starting out in their careers.

You are well known for your hobbies (music and motorcycles to name two) on top of your professional accomplishments.  How do you maintain all of your varied vocational and avocational interests?
I wish I could say that’s because I am a master of time management and work-life balance.  But I can’t really claim credit for either.  What I will claim is that engaging in such activities outside of work helps me nurture that other part of me that longs for adventure and inspiration, and gives me a chance (especially with music) to create something of beauty (well, at least sometimes).  The uplift from those experiences helps me perform better in my work life.

Science isn’t always seen as the most welcoming/friendly environment in terms of work-life balance.  Has this been a challenge in your career? If so, how have you coped?
Yes, achieving that balance is indeed a challenge for those of us working in science.  As NIH Director and PI of an intramural lab, my work demands can tend to soak up every waking hour, and some that should be sleeping.  And sometimes I let that get the best of me.  It helps me to have a life partner and soulmate (my wife Diane) who is much more balanced than I am and who is masterful in diagnosing and treating the work monomania when it gets out of hand.

Do you regularly engage in any self-care (body/mind/spirit/heart) strategies?
My spiritual life is really important to me – and so I spend a little time most mornings in Bible reading and reflection.  I’m also in a men’s book club with several other non-science professionals who are interested in how faith is relevant to modern life – that has been a wonderful source of shared growth.  And then there’s health.  Ten years ago, I realized I was doing a poor job of health maintenance – no exercise, terrible diet.  A DNA test pointed to a higher than average risk of diabetes, a disease my lab works on and that I really don’t want to get.  I hired a personal trainer, stopped indulging so much in pastries and ice cream, and lost 30 pounds.  Those pounds have never come back – and that same trainer comes to my house twice a week at 5:45 AM to put me through an intense hour of weight and cardio training. The effect of both the spiritual and physical training on my sense of wellbeing has been significant.

What advice do you have for scientists just starting out on their career paths for maintaining their own self-care?
It sounds like a cliché – but it’s important to make self-care a priority, not an afterthought.  Choose activities that really enhance your joy in life; they will be easier to sustain.  Find like-minded people to share those experiences, whether it’s a dance class, a softball league, or a book club – it’s too easy to decide you just don’t have time for something if there’s no one else involved.  The chance to do science is an incredible privilege, but it can also be very exhausting.  Figure out what kind of fuel your tank needs, and then make sure to fill it often enough to keep the engine going!

As shown by Dr. Collins, wellness is more than just one thing. Remember to prioritize your own wellness and self-care by taking advantage of the resources and activities near you. If you are at the NIH, the OITE offers many workshops and drop-in groups on topics such as: resilience, assertiveness, and stress management to name a few. Many university campuses and community organizations provide similar offerings through student life services or recreational groups.

 


Finding Meaning in Your Work

August 20, 2018

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A recent Hidden Brain podcast entitled “You 2.0: Dream Jobs” explored the importance of finding meaning in your work. Amy Wrzesniewski is a Professor of Management at Yale and her current research focuses on studying how employees shape their interactions and relationships with others in the workplace to add meaning to their job and change their own work identity. She notes, “People who see their work as a calling are significantly more satisfied with their jobs. They’re significantly more satisfied with their lives. They’re more engaged in what it is they’re doing and tend to be better performers regardless of what the work is.”

One finding in her research focuses on the idea of cognitive crafting, reframing what it is you’re doing and how you come to think about your work. People aren’t always in a position to change their job description or the nature of their job; however, changing the way you think about your job is perhaps the greatest power you have.

Wrzesniewski discusses three types of job crafting techniques:

  • Task Crafting
    This is when employees change their formal job responsibilities by adding/dropping/altering tasks or the time devoted to certain tasks. Example: A tech-savvy customer service representative offering to help with IT issues, even though it is not technically in her job description.
  • Relational Crafting
    Altering how and when employees interact with other in order to perform their job duties. Example: A software engineer collaborating with a marketing analyst about product design and market response.
  • Cognitive Crafting
    When employees alter the way they perceive the tasks and relationships that comprise their job. Example: Hospital cleaning crew sees their job as a way to also check in on patients while tidying their rooms.

 
This work also ties in with research from Daniel Pink, who believes that there are three essential elements that motivate us. They include: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Most people strive to find purpose in their lives and in their work. They yearn to see how their contributions can fit into a larger picture.

Some of the key takeaways from this research are that it is often up to you to branch out and find creative ways to add something new or different to your work in order to make it more meaningful to you. Be sure to continue to do the tasks assigned to you, but if you are feeling stuck at work, then take some time to think about how you can craft your current position into one that offers you more meaning and satisfaction.

 


FROM THE ARCHIVE: Keep Stress From Derailing Your Work and Life

April 3, 2018

Post written by Sharon Milgram, Ph.D., Director, Office of Intramural Training and Education at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD.

Many of our trainees are currently managing the anxiety and pressures that accompany the job and graduate/professional school application process. This From the Archive post will offer insightful perspectives and strategies that will help you manage these pressures effectively.

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Stress is inevitable – in our relationships, at home and at work, pretty much all around us. At NIH our stresses include experimental roadblocks, bureaucracy, paper and grant rejections, the school/job search process, difficult workplace relationships, and/or the craziness of juggling our work and life. On top of these normal (and expected) workplace stresses, many of us are now experiencing a high level of stress related to the uncertainty of future government policies, here and abroad.  While some stress can be helpful, driving us to work hard and focus on things that are important to us, too much stress is counter-productive leading to sleepless nights, negative coping strategies, frayed relationships, and illness. Now, more than ever, we all need to pause and consider how we respond to stress and how we can work together as a community to manage the stress that seems to be swirling around us. I often talk with NIH trainees and staff about managing stress and wanted to share some insights from those discussions.

I will begin by laying out a brief model for wellness we developed here at OITE that is rooted in acknowledging that we need to focus on multiple elements to truly lead a healthy and less stressed life.  This holistic approach to wellness prompts us to consider four areas – our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves.

Wellness Model

Physical wellness includes things such as getting enough sleep, eating nutritional meals, exercising, avoiding harmful substances, getting regular health care, and taking breaks when we need them.  Mental wellness involves modifying unhelpful thought patterns (e.g., ruminating about the past/worrying about the future vs. paying attention to the present, perfectionism, comparing ourselves to others, negative self-tapes), as well as practicing self-affirmations and allowing the mind to engage in new things that interest us.  Emotional wellness focuses on being able to recognize and feel our emotions, expressing our needs honestly and directly, asking for help when we need it, creating and staying connected to a supportive circle of friends and family, and demonstrating compassion for ourselves and others.  Finally, spiritual wellness is about cultivating what gives us a sense of deeper meaning, purpose, and connection in our lives.  For some people this is done through religious beliefs and practices, while for others it is found in non-sectarian areas, such as nature, the world of science, social justice initiatives, creative endeavors and so on.  Whatever the arena, spiritual wellness involves having a connection to something beyond ourselves, seeking out resources that nurture us spiritually, investing time in what is most meaningful to us, reading books and/or watching inspirational media, and engaging in activities that support our life’s purpose.  It also means learning how to be a human being instead of a human doing.  It’s important to pay attention to all four areas as any one area affects our well-being in the other three.  Holistic wellness also involves increasing our mindfulness or awareness of how we’re doing in each area in order to practice good self-care.

After looking carefully at my own wellness practices and noticing some important gaps, I started experimenting with some new approaches. I am sharing my new strategies here, and hope you will share yours in the comments section, with the hope that more explicit discussions about wellness will help all of us all have an easier time during these stressful times. I recently compiled a playlist of upbeat songs and am trying to take more mindful walks (physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness). I realized I needed to stop reading the news at night and have replaced surfing the internet with a good novel or calm conversation with my wife (mental and emotional wellness). To learn more meditation strategies (a big struggle for me!) I participated in a class where we meditated each time we met (mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness).  My most fun wellness addition — I am learning to box! This is one exercise that totally takes me out of my head while relieving huge amounts of stress (physical and mental awareness). We all have a different set of wellness practices that work for us; let me know what wellness practices work for you; perhaps your ideas will inspire others!

Resilience is defined as the ability to grow and learn through setback and difficult times. The foundation of resilience is wellness and a foundation of wellness is community. If you wish to bring your most creative and resilient self to work (and beyond) each day, make an investment in your future by engaging with your colleagues at work and by finding sources of community at home.  Also, join us next week for our Tune in and Take Care workshop focused on stress management, wellness and resilience on the Bethesda campus and watch for offerings on other campuses as well. Get involved in groups on campus and make an effort to get to know the people around you. And get out there and move…. sing…. dance…. paint…. meditate…. connect…… pray…. hike…. whatever makes you more resilient and happy!

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Visit the OITE website to learn about the variety of services offered to trainees.  We invite you to join us for the Spring 2018 Tune in and Take Care workshop or our weekly Mindfulness Meditation workshops.  Also, check out the new Graduate Student Discussion Group, the Postbac Discussion Group or the Post Doc Stress Discussion Group.  We invite our readers beyond NIH to access similar services in your community to help you with ongoing wellness and stress management.

 


Blog Post: Avoid giving what you may catch: Keeping a healthy workplace a priority during the flu season

November 14, 2017

Written by Guest Blogger Shannon DeMaria Ph.D., Research Ethics Training Coordinator, Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE)

Lab and clinic life is can be demanding and relentlessly busy, resulting in schedules with little flexibility or time for impromptu absence. Unfortunately, the flu and similar bugs don’t care, and will circulate regardless.Meanwhile, experimental and clinical biology is difficult to pause. Your cells won’t split themselves, rounds need to be done, and maybe you can still make it in, plus or minus some medication to mask the symptoms.

But, should you? Losing a day could mean losing many days of progress, so the trade-off of that day off doesn’t look very valuable, does it?

 

You may also feel an unspoken and unhealthy pressure to demonstrate your dedication to your work by not taking time off due to personal discomfort. [(This can be seen as part of a broader culture, common in the sciences, of glorifying overwork simply for its own sake.)]

 There’s a word to describe this action: presenteeism. This is the act of being at work when you really shouldn’t be. When you’re immersed in your work, it can be hard to think about much else, but there are times you should look up from that notebook, computer, or clipboard. First – look after yourself! A restful break might be exactly what you need to recover more quickly. Second – look beyond yourself! Particularly in seasons when infectious diseases are spreading, you ought to consider that not staying home has broader impacts than your own immediate schedule.  The consequences of presenteeism include:

 

  • Potentially increased time being ill (and you want to minimize this, right?)
  • Loss of efficacy (you’re more likely to make mistakes.)
  • Loss of Productivity (you won’t be as capable as you think you might.)
  • Workplace epidemics (your co-workers will thank you for not being there.)
  • Future poor health and exhaustion (a repeating cycle that takes a toll.)

 

While you can’t hit ‘pause’ on your experiments, consider working out reciprocal or lab/group-wide arrangements where critical tasks could be temporarily reassigned. And when you do have to come in, precautions such as face masks and minimizing physical contact can be effective in preventing transmission. If you have to cancel something, remember that this happens to us all. Workplace outbreaks will spill into non-work environments, affecting families, children, and more. Ignoring your health and that of those around you can have long lasting and far-rippling costs you hadn’t thought of in that ‘stay home or not?’ calculus.

 Like vaccines, preventing workplace outbreaks has a cumulative or “herd” effect – the more people who are mindful of their practices while ill, the more effective the strategy of illness reduction becomes for all.

 Finally, keep in mind that we may work in an environment with people who are immunocompromised or otherwise highly susceptible to infectious disease. Staying home when you could spread something might seem like an inconvenience, but in reality can be crucial for promoting the NIH mission of public health. So, for your own sake, your co-workers’ sake, and the sake of our patients, please be mindful of the impacts of coming to work while infectious or feeling terrible. The cost of not taking time off may be far greater than you realize!

 

 


Welcome Summer Interns: OITE Blogs of Interest

June 19, 2017

 

The Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) of the NIH extends a warm welcome to the Summer 2017 interns. Over the next few months, you will engage in many unique opportunities in biomedical research that will encourage you to consider pursuing careers and further graduate study in the field.  As you are settling in to your lab and meeting your PIs and fellow trainees, we want to make sure that you are aware of a variety of helpful blog posts that will help you to maximize your summer experience.

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Getting oriented to a new lab and role as a researcher is both exciting and somewhat challenging for summer interns. We suggest reading the blog Understanding the Impact of Change to learn about the key factors associated with any transition.  Next read Making the Most of Your Transition to the NIH.

One of the challenges in most careers is how to achieve a healthy work-life balance. The OITE Director and our wellness programming staff encourage you to review our model of wellness and managing stress as part of your training to be a successful scientist.

Meeting your new mentor is another opportunity that you will have this summer. To prepare yourself for this essential growth opportunity, we suggest reading the blogs on Identifying Mentors and Learning How To Make the Most of Mentoring Relationships.

Career decision making and pursuing graduate or professional school options are also areas that which you will embrace during the summer.  In addition to utilizing the resources at your college and university during the academic year, the OITE Career Services Center has career counselors who will help you explore you assess how your values, interests, and skills relate to healthy career decision making and/or develop CV, resumes, and practice interviewing skills.   We also offer pre-professional advisors who will help you to prepare you to apply for graduate or professional school.  Stay tuned for a blog post that will prepare you for the Graduate and Professional School Fair on July 18, 2017 where representatives from a number of schools will come to NIH to meet you and share information about their programs.

We look forward to working with you this summer. Visit the OITE website for further information.  For our readers who are alumni or outside of the NIH, we encourage you to seek similar services through your training director, or your college and university or in the community.


Investing in Yourself: Knowing When to Seek Counseling

May 15, 2017

Post written by Michael J. Sheridan, MSW, Ph.D,. Special Advisor for Diversity and Wellness Programs, Office of Intramural Education and Training, National Institute of Health, Bethesda, MD Michael.sheridan@nih.gov

When our usual ways of coping are not working, it may be time to find a counselor. The reality is that most of us could benefit from professional counseling at various points in our life. I know for myself, the stresses and strains during my doctoral program was a time when going to counseling made all the difference. Since then, I think of obtaining counseling resources as investing in my own well being.  After all, we routinely take our cars in for tune-ups, our pets to the vet, and our bodies to the doctor for physicals.  Holistic self-care means investing in our own mental and emotional health, as well!

From talking with NIH fellows in wellness workshops and individual appointments, I know that many face a number of challenging life situations. For example, adjusting to being in a new geographical area in a large, competitive work environment without your usual or familiar supports.  Or trying to determine your own career path when what you’re interested in pursuing differs from the vision of parents, PIs, or mentors.  Or trying to excel at work while finding time to give to partners, spouses, children or other important people in your life.  Or struggling with trying to make your own health and wellbeing a priority when receiving messages that nothing matters but getting the work done.  And sometimes beginning to realize that patterns of behavior that you’ve used in the past just aren’t working anymore – and, in fact, may be making the situation worse.  All of these circumstances can be managed better with the help of focused and supportive counseling.

Some people are comfortable with the prospect of seeing a mental health professional, but others are not open to the idea. They may have an internalized belief that going to a counselor means that something is really wrong with you or that you are weak or that you are avoiding responsibility for your life.  These ideas often stem from 4 prevalent myths about counseling:

Myth #1: Only “crazy” people go to counseling.

Truth: Very few individuals receiving outpatient therapy fall within the “severe mental illness” categories. Most people seek counseling because of everyday stressors or difficult life situations.  A counselor can provide support and assistance in learning how to better cope with these as well as attend to any feelings of depression or anxiety that may be present.

Myth #2: Why can’t I just talk to my friends?!

Truth: Counselors differ from friends in many ways. Beyond the obvious difference of their years of training and experience, they rarely give advice or tell you what to do like well-meaning friends often try to do.  They are there to listen to you and help you come to your own decisions within a non-judgmental and supportive environment. They can also provide an important “mirror” for you to better understand what you’re going through.

Myth #3: Counselors always want to go back to your childhood and blame your parents for everything.

Truth: Counseling involves learning how to accept responsibility for your own life. Sometimes exploring childhood issues that may be contributing to your current situation is indicated, but not always.  The major focus is on changing perceptions and behaviors in your current life that are creating difficulties for you.

Myth #4: Therapy can take years – once you start, it never ends!

Truth: Most counseling is short-term (8-20 sessions) and focused on specific and attainable goals. Sometimes longer work is needed and desired, and other times people take a break for a while and come back to counseling later.  But the decision to end therapy is one you make with your counselor – you are not held captive!

The NIH Employee Assistance Program provides counseling services to help current employees with their health and wellness issues. The OITE also provides short-term wellness advising and can help you get connected with a local counselor.   We can help you understand the training and expertise of different kinds of counselors (e.g., social workers, licensed professional counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists) and what to look for in a counselor.  [You may want to get started by reading this article on “How to Choose a Counselor or Therapist”: http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/how-to-find-a-therapist/] We can also help you better understand the insurance process.  So invest in yourself and contact us if you think you would benefit from some counseling.  We’re here to make the process easier!